I peeled back the curtains the moment I woke up in the morning: the clouds were high and bright. No blue skies, but it’s better than rain! I quickly went to the bathroom to get cleaned up and joined my friends at breakfast.
This was going to be a long day. Our bus tickets, sold at $42.75 a piece, was intended for Eielson stop, which was 66 miles from the park entrance. The journey each way was approximately 3 hours long since the bus stopped whenever there was wildlife sighting.
On the way inbound, we saw a moose, two grizzlies, four female Dall sheep, and a bunch of caribou. A few day hikers and one overnight campers hopped on the bus during the trip. A day hiker sat next to us, so I brought up the question of trailless hiking strategies. The guy and his friend had been in the park for a week and had, unfortunately, been struggling with trailless hiking as well. He admitted that there was a lot of unpleasant bush whacking involved. Sometimes, the vegetation was so thick that they simply couldn’t traverse. In the end, they stuck with hikes along river beds.
Two hiking trails shoot off from the visitor center at Eielson: one heading down towards the river and the second heading up the hillside. By the time we arrived to Eielson, the visitor center was already swarmed by visitors. Surprisingly, not many visitors chose to hike the trails.
We started the one mile hike down towards the river. The river bed was mostly dry and pebbly, and creeks diverge and confluence and diverge again at the bottom of an enormous valley carved out by a glacier eons ago. We strolled along the creek, clapping our hands and letting out occasional shouts to avoid surprise bear encounters.
At one point, Allie raised her hands and said, “Stop!” A female caribou sauntered towards us, slowly without any apparent sense of concern. With her head bowed, it moved closer, fifty feet, forty feet, thirty feet. Suddenly, she looked up and found herself no more than twenty feet from a bunch of two leggers. She looked startled, falling back a couple of steps, turned around and hustled away. I pulled out my phone trying snap a photo, but the opportunity had been lost.
By the time we returned to the visitor center, the crowd had gotten bigger. We had no intention to linger as raindrops started to sprinkle overhead. He headed up the Eielson Alpine Trail pointing at the ridge. This trail had similar incline as Mt Healy yesterday. About halfway up the trail as I was scanning the ridgeline, a dark silhouette of a majestic male caribou emerged suddenly near the peak. He looked down at me like a king surveying his subjects in his kingdom. We gazed at each other for a minute. He casually turned his head left and right showing off the crown of two giant antlers. As I looked up in awe and excitingly called out to my friends, who were focused on putting one foot in front of the other, the king stepped back behind the ridgeline, disappeared like a ghost.
I quickened my pace hoping to catch another glimpse of him at the top of the ridge. As I approached to top, following the zigzagging trail, he appeared again. This time he stood no more than twenty feet from a solo hiker on the ridge. They stared at each other for a few seconds. The lucky hiker dropped down his backpack to fish out his camera and started snapping photos. The animal lost interest and disappeared behind the ridgeline.
I rushed to the top toward the solo hiker, who was putting away his camera. “Did you catch the caribou?” “Yes, very friendly!” The man smile ear to ear, replying with a Russian accent. He pointed down the valley and said, “He went down that way.” I followed his fingers and walked forward another hundred yards– no sign of the animal. The king had returned to his kingdom.
On my GPS the trail should’ve ended at the top of the ridge, but the path continued on for miles on the mountain ridge into the distance. This was a good potential start for multi-day trips.
By the time we got off the alpine trail, we were ready to call it a day, but there were still 3 more hours of bus ride to get back to the park entrance. Back at Eielson Visitor Center, it had become a ghost town. Everyone had left except a few staff members holding down the fort. A staff with a clipboard asked us if we were looking for an outbound bus and put down our names on the waitlist sheet. We caught the next bus out.
The outbound bus brought us even better wildlife encounters. We saw three grizzlies including a mama and a cub grazing the bushes. We also found two male caribou hanging out near the road by Toklat River. While we rode the bus, we made plans for our third day. We knew a 4 mile hike from Savage River to Savage River Campground. Connecting that to a few miles in the wilderness meant that we finally get a taste of the trailless hiking. To kick off the final hiking day, we will be at the kennel checking out the dog show. Keep on following me for our third day of adventure in Denali National Park!